Insular Manuscript Illumination

Carol A. Farr

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Insular Manuscript Illumination

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology


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The manuscript decoration produced in Ireland and the British Isles from about 600 to 850 marks the advent of medieval book art. Linked to the arrival of Christianity, it includes some of the earliest surviving examples from groups of northern European people who, never having lived fully within the Roman Empire, received the religion from a culture outside their own milieu. Artistic developments in this context included mixtures of native art with Mediterranean as well as interpretations of Late Antique and contemporary Mediterranean art. The name “Insular,” however, is used here not to denote a style but rather to provide a simplified label for the stylistically diverse examples of decorated manuscripts from 7th- through mid-9th-century Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Pictish, British, and Scottish contexts. Another term, “Hiberno-Saxon,” is sometimes used, but it, too, is not entirely satisfactory because it appears to exclude all but Irish and Anglo-Saxon contributions and to ignore the complexity of the various groups’ interactions. Manuscript decoration played an important role in visual art developments because of the Bible’s centrality to Christian thought, ritual, and authority. Moreover, the imported medium of book art required adaptations of native decorative forms and assimilation of foreign traditions, such as illusionism and depictions of the human figure. By the late 8th century, Gospel books and Psalters, the most significant biblical texts for Christian thought and prayer, appear to have become sites for development of complex interpretative images and traditions of graphic presentations that incorporated concepts of orthodoxy, liturgical and devotional meaning, and the role of the church. Of all illuminated Insular manuscripts, biblical manuscripts survive in the largest numbers, but they were not alone in receiving decoration. Other types of illuminated texts include prayers, histories, lives of saints, biblical commentaries, poetry, natural science texts, liturgical books, canon law, and grammatical studies. The chronological reach of Insular manuscript illumination extends from the 7th century, when the groundwork laid by Irish monastic founders (such as Patrick, Brendan, Columba, and Aidan) and the missionaries sent from Italy and Gaul to the Anglo-Saxons (Augustine, Mellitus, Paulinus, Felix, and Birinus) had begun to flourish, and it comes to an end in the later years of the Carolingian empire, with changes brought with the arrival of the Vikings. Geographically its embrace reaches beyond the islands of Britain and Ireland to Continental centers (Luxeuil, Bobbio, St. Gall, Echternach, Fulda, and others) founded by Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries and their followers, the major figures being Columbanus, Willibrord, and Boniface. Most of the decorated manuscripts have undoubtedly been lost, however, and determining dates and places of origin and of use for those that have survived is fraught with difficulty, with only a few of them attributable and datable by evidence such as scribal colophons. Production of Insular manuscripts is thought to have been done almost exclusively in monasteries, but the involvement of royal and aristocratic families in these communities certainly exerted a considerable force. Royal involvement left some record in texts and in the archaeology of royal sites such as Dunadd. The gaps in our knowledge about specific contexts have given rise to a sometimes frustrating conflict of opinions in scholarship but also to lively debate and an ever-widening discussion.

Article.  13486 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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